Archive for the ‘Gardening at The Cloisters’ Category

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Women and the Medieval Garden

Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses

Above: Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses, ca. 1425–1450. South Netherlandish. Wool warp, wool wefts; 93 x 108 in. (236.2 x 274.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1959 (59.85). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

The theme of this year’s Garden Days at The Cloisters is the relationship between women and gardens, real or imaginary, in the Middle Ages. Please join me at noon on Saturday, June 4, and Sunday, June 5, for enticing views into the hortus conclusus of the Virgin Mary, the convent cloister garth, and the delightful pleasure grounds of medieval romance, inhabited by elegant ladies. In Bonnefont garden, we’ll focus on women’s role in practical horticulture and on plants in medieval health, healing, beauty, and housekeeping, especially herbs mentioned in the works produced by the brilliant twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen and those attributed to the legendary Dame Trotula of Salerno.

In addition to this special gallery/garden talk, you’ll have the opportunity to meet the gardeners, enjoy tours of the gardens, hear readings from the Romance of the Rose, participate in a family workshop, and see a demonstration of medieval embroidery techniques.

Learn more about the programs scheduled for June 5 and 6.

I’ll post again after the event and a short break.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hart’s Tongue

Asplenium Scolopendrium

The hart’s tongue fern, named for a fancied resemblance to the tongue of the male red deer, was used medicinally for centuries but is now grown as an ornamental plant. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium, also known as Phyllitis scolopendrium) is a European member of a very large family of ferns, the Aspleniaceae, or spleenwort family. The family includes nine genera and some seven hundred species. The straplike leaves were employed in ancient and medieval medicine. Dioscorides remarks on the bitterness of the leaves, but recommends that they be drunk with wine as an antidote to snakebite; he also prescribes a draught of ‘phyllitis’ for dysentery and diarrhea (De Materia medica, III.121). The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus advocated a decoction of A. scolopendrium, drunk for forty days, to dissolve blockages of the spleen. The fern was also said to ease gout, clear eyes, heal fresh wounds, cool fever, and remove warts and pustules. The U.C.L.A. Index of Medieval Medical Images includes a realistic representation of lingua cervina, or deer’s tongue, from an Italian herbal dated to about 1500.

The leathery, undulating fronds of this attractive, easily grown woodland plant are not divided, as many ferns are; ornamental forms with exaggerated undulations (see image) or crested tips have been developed. Although the fern is hardy to U.S.D.A. Zone 5 and is evergreen in milder climates, we find it necessary to remove all the old fronds in early spring.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eagle or Dove?

Columbine Flowering under Quince Aquilegia vulgaris

Columbine flowering under a quince tree in Bonnefont garden. Columba is Latin for “dove,” and the flower is named for the fancied resemblance of its nectaries to a circle of doves. The modern botanical name, Aquilegia, also links the blossom with a bird, but refers to the Latin for eagle, aquila. Both avian associations were current in the Middle Ages. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

A number of the medieval names for the delightful Aquilegia vulgaris, a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family, were suggested by the resemblance of the flower’s nectaries to a circle of birds, whose wings extend downward from their incurving necks, as if they were feeding from a dish. According to Albertus Magnus the name aquilegia was taken from aquila, the Latin for “eagle.” While Richard Mabey and others presume that the identification with the eagle was made on the basis of the “winged” nectaries, Maude Grieve claims that the spurs of the flowers were thought to resemble the raptor’s talons, although she provides no historical source for this identification. Hildegard of Bingen referred to the columbine as agleya. (For more on Hildegard of Bingen, see “Mutter Natur” (October 15, 2010). The modern German name for the columbine is akelei, and the plant is still known in Italy as aquilina.

In both French and English, the plant is commonly known as “columbine,” in keeping with the medieval columbina from the Latin for dove or pigeon. The herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius attributes the name not to the form, but to the color of the flower, which is said to resemble that of the columba.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Bedevian, Armenag K. Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, English, French, German, Italian and Turkish Languages. Cairo: Argus & Papazian Presses, 1936.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

Mabey, Richard. Flora Brittanica. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Swallow Wort

Greater Celandine Broken Stem of Greater Celandine (detail)

Greater celandine, or swallow wort, has an ancient association with the common European swallow; it was believed that mother birds dropped the juice of the celandine into the eyes of their blind fledglings. The plant and the bird were linked for many centuries, and celandine’s reputation as a sovereign remedy for clearing eyes and sharpening the sight outlasted the Middle Ages.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 211

The greater celandine, Chelidonium majus is native to Europe and western Asia, but is widely naturalized in waste places in the eastern United States, where it is commonly known as “swallow wort.” For more information, see the U.S.D.A. Plants Database. (Chelidonium majus is characterized as greater celandine, to distinguish it from an altogether different species, Ranunculus ficaria, widely known as lesser celandine.) Read more »

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grasping the Nettle


Handling Nettles (detail)
Nettles' Stinging Hairs

Leather gauntlets are required when handling the stinging nettles grown in Bonnefont garden. The nettles grow in the middle of a raised bed, where visitors won’t brush against them inadvertently, and are caged with willow and labeled as an additional safeguard (see full image). Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

But this little patch which lies facing east
In the small open courtyard before my door
Was full — of nettles! All over
My small piece of land they grew, their barbs
Tipped with a spear of tingling poison.
What should I do? So thick were the ranks
That grew from the tangle of roots below,
They were like the green hurdles a stableman skillfully
Weaves of pliant osiers when the horses hooves
Rot in the standing puddles and go soft as fungus.
So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

The stinging nettles in Walahfrid’s monastery garden were clearly unwanted, but Urtica dioica is carefully cultivated in Bonnefont Cloister garden. A common perennial weed of moist soil and disturbed ground, stinging nettle is widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, having crossed the ocean with the earliest English settlers. (See the U.S.D.A. database for more information). Nettles thrive on the phosphates that are a product of human habitation and animal husbandry, and are often found near long-abandoned settlements and waste dumps. Read more »

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Gardener’s Perseverance and the Fruits of His Labor

Working in the Garden

Above: Carly Still, who joined the staff as a part-time gardener just last week, tending to the woodland plants under the quince. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Then come the showers of Spring, from time to time
Watering our tiny crop, and in its turn
The gentle moon caresses the delicate leaves.
Should a dry spell rob the plants of the moisture they need,
My gardening zeal and the fear that the slender shoots
May die of thirst make me scurry to bring fresh water
In brimming buckets. With my own hands I pour it
Drop by drop, taking care not to shift the seeds
By too sudden or lavish a soaking. Sure enough,
In a little while the garden is carpeted over
With tiny young shoots. True, that part there
Below the high roof is dry and rough from the lack
Of rain and the heaven’s benison; true, this
Part here is always in shade, for the high wall’s
Solid rampart forbids the sun to enter.
Yet of all that was lately entrusted to it, the garden
Has held nothing enclosed in its sluggish soil
Without hope of growth. What is more, those plants that were moved,
More dead than alive, to the newly dug furrows are now
Green again; our garden has brought them back
To life, making them good with abundant growth.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

The ninth-century Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo was a gardener as well as a scholar and a poet, and worked hard in his monastery garden. We, too, are hard at work bringing the gardens of The Cloisters back to life after a long winter. Much remains to be done, but the hellebores, violets, daffodils, lungworts, and fritillaries are in bloom. The hops are climbing, the pear tree is blossoming, and the quince are putting out tiny, silvery leaves.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, April 15, 2011

Our Pear

Espaliered Pear Pear Blossom

The veteran espaliered pear just coming into bloom in Bonnefont Cloister garden has grown there since the 1940s. The tree is responding well to a program of rejuvenatory pruning. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

The espaliered pear is one of the most beloved trees at The Cloisters, and has graced Bonnefont garden for more than sixty years. This method of training fruit trees against a wall is a Renaissance development, rather than a medieval technique. The heat and light that radiate from the wall help to ripen the fruit.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, April 8, 2011

Checkered History

fritillaria-meleagris_detail

Guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris) blooming in Bonnefont garden; both the common name and the botanical name of this European flowering bulb refer to the fancied resemblance of the checkered bell to the plumage of the African guineafowl (Numidia meleagris). Photograph by Corey Eilhardt. See full image.

Of the facultie of these pleasant floures there is nothing set down in antient or later Writers, but [they] are greatly esteemed for the beautifying of our gardens, and the bosoms of the beautifull.

—”Of Turkie or Ginnie-Hen Floure” from The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plants

The English names of this curious flowering bulb were derived from the resemblance of its distinctive markings to those of the African guineafowl, imported into Europe from Turkey. John Gerard’s remarks clearly indicate that he knew the plant only as a rare and choice ornamental introduced into English flower gardens, including his own. He considered their native country to be France, where he knew them to grow wild near Orleans and Lyons. Read more »

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sweet and Low

Sweet Violet under Quince

The sweet-smelling, short-stemmed garden violet (Viola odorata) blooms from late March into April. Prized in medieval pleasure gardens for its color and scent, this violet was also at home in kitchen and physic gardens. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Native to woodland margins and damp and shady places throughout Europe, the early blooming Viola odorata was prized for its fragrance as well as its rich purple color. The sweet violet is included in Albertus Magnus’ list of desirable flowers for the pleasure garden, along with the lily and the rose. These three flowers are often linked symbolically as well as horticulturally in medieval sources, as flowers of Paradise and as emblems of the Virgin—the low-growing but beautiful and sweet-scented violet was equated with Mary’s humility. Read more »

Friday, March 18, 2011

Orange Blossom Special

Orange Blossom

Clusters of waxy white orange blossom produce the distinctive and delicious scent that now perfumes the arcades of Cuxa Cloister. The bitter oranges that winter over indoors at The Cloisters are in their second week of bloom. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

When distilled, the fragrant flowers of the bitter orange yield an essential oil that rises to the top of the vessel. The water that remains once the oil has been drawn off is known as orange flower water. This water has long been used in Middle Eastern cuisines, to perfume sugar syrups used in sweets and pastries, and to flavor beverages. Read more »